MY GENERATION - A Strange Tale, Part 3

It is important to realise that Shel Talmy's treatment of The Who was no different from that meted out to other artists by record producers and labels at this time. The Beatles were on a rotten deal from EMI and the Stones were rescued only by the intervention of Allen Klein whose tough talking put the wind up Decca but whose hiring they would come to regret in the fullness of time (as would The Beatles, but that’s another story). Also, Talmy took on The Who when no one else wanted them – they'd been rejected by EMI – and the records he made with them were fantastic, the hits that put them on the map. The fact is he got lucky, firstly by signing a group that would develop into one of the world’s all-time great rock bands – and the odds against this happening were about 10,000 to one – and secondly by facing in dispute inexperienced management so desperate to jettison him that they sacrificed far more than everyone involved ever bargained for.
         But jettison him they did and back in 1966 The Who now found themselves recording for Reaction, switching to Track (Lambert and Stamp’s own label) in 1967, and to Polydor (and its subsequent owners) from 1975 to the present day. Due to their estrangement from Talmy, its producer, the My Generation album went out of print in the UK within 12 months of its release and nobody seemed inclined to reissue it in Britain until, curiously, Virgin picked it up in 1980. (This issue was pressed on inferior vinyl and appears to have been copied directly from the album, not from Shel Talmy’s master tapes. It disappeared at the end of its meagre print run.) It was a different situation in the US where Decca kept it available domestically throughout the sixties and, when MCA bought out Decca in the early seventies, The Who Sings My Generation (its US title) was reissued in a budget double-album package with the substandard US-only compilation Magic Bus – The Who On Tour. MCA released the album on CD in the States in the early eighties without altering the track listing.
In the meantime The Who became superstars, playing on stage with breathtaking panache that continued, by and large, until Keith Moon’s death in 1978. All of them eventually married and had young families, bought big houses and fancy cars and, despite the penance they still paid to Talmy, by 1970 there was no longer the financial pressure to tour with the regularity of times past. Roger created the prototype classical rock God, replete with bare chest and golden curls; Pete found a guru and became a deeply enlightened rock sage, perhaps the most sought-after interviewee the genre had thrown up after Lennon and Dylan; John Entwistle was the archetype bassist, superbly proficient, much respected in the trade; and Keith was, well, Moon the Loon, the prototype of the hedonistic, swashbuckling rock star whose appetite for self-destruction eventually consumed him. They were individuals and they were a band, for a while the most popular and respected group in Britain. Never the most prolific of recording artists, they nevertheless released a further nine albums up until Keith’s death, and a further two with Kenney Jones on drums up to their first ‘retirement’ in 1982. Their reputation and fortunes secure thanks to performing live, after a shaky eighties The Who were well on the way to rock’n’roll beatification by the nineties.
         So it was that after a lifetime of being a fan, writing about them extensively for Melody Maker and in a couple of books, and amassing a sizeable collection of Who records, in 1993 I talked my way into helping the group put together a 4-CD box set. It was the hope of those involved that all the tracks would be remastered from original masters, and not from secondary sources. Pete’s tape store inevitably yielded everything but the Shel Talmy three-track masters which he had hung on to for three decades. When access was sought we were rebuffed, evidently because MCA and Polydor were unable to reach an agreement re advances and royalties. We were thus obliged to use mono-tape copies that we found in Pete’s library. In a compilers’ note included in the booklet that accompanied the CDs I wrote: “Unfortunately, owing to a long standing difference of opinion with Shel Talmy, who produced all of The Who’s work in 1965, the master tapes to this music (which includes 'I Can't Explain', 'Anyway Anyhow Anywhere' and all of the My Generation LP) were not available for a thorough re-mix or for conversion into proper stereo. That's the reason why The High Numbers actually sound better than the early Who.”
         I’m happy to say that the box set was well received, so much so that I then initiated a programme of wholesale reissues of The Who’s back catalogue on upgraded CDs, complete with bonus tracks and 24-page booklets. We didn’t do this in chronological order, opening the series with a new Live At Leeds (1970) and cherry picking our way through the catalogue until every album, up to and including It’s Hard (1982), had been upgraded – everything, that is, expect My Generation.
         Eternally narked at what he saw as an unforgiveable slight on the part of Kit Lambert and The Who back in 1966, the difference of opinion with Talmy was intensified by his belief that MCA and/or The Who had been consistently underpaying the royalties he felt were legally due to him. Noting that The Who was capable of shifting concert tickets on a grand scale, he assumed their records would sell in the multiples of millions, like Pink Floyd’s Dark Side Of The Moon, Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours or The Bee Gees’ Saturday Night Fever, but this was never the case. The Who’s record sales were certainly respectable but they were never in the mega bracket in which these artists, and a few others, found themselves in the seventies. Talmy, it seems, was unable to comprehend why The Who could sell out multiple appearances at large sports arenas, perhaps even more so than the Floyd, Mac and BGs, yet did not sell gargantuan quantities of albums, and therefore assumed he was being hoodwinked. It was an ironic situation when you consider that The Who’s box-office power was due entirely to their status as stage performers par excellence, a state of affairs that the situation with Talmy had done so much to foster. Either way, the result was stalemate when it came to getting the producer to surrender the tapes in his possession.
         And that’s how things seemed likely to stay until, to everyone’s surprise, Shel Talmy placed his ad on e-Bay offering to sell The Who’s three-track masters as sort of high-end memorabilia. I heard about it through The Who grapevine and contacted Pete. He said he wasn’t interested in paying $500,000 for the tapes and neither were The Who collectively; nor were The Who’s record labels, MCA and Polygram, soon to merge under the Universal Music banner. The problem was the price. Terrific though My Generation is, it wouldn’t recoup $500,000 in royalties as a re-issue at this late date; indeed, it’d be lucky to recoup 10% of that. It was clear that a mediator was needed, someone without an axe to grind who could bring both sides together.
         Enter David Swartz, a successful American businessman and a notable Who collector. At my prompting David visited Shel Talmy in Los Angeles and explained to him that his demands were out of the question. He also explained that The Who’s tapes in his vault were a diminishing asset; that in five years’ time they would be worth less than they were worth today, since The Who’s fan base was not getting any bigger.
         This did the trick. Talmy reduced his price to something between $50,000 and $100,000; Pete got in touch, so did the record labels. The deadlock was broken, a deal struck. My Generation, remixed by Shel, found its way into the record racks as a pristine double CD, with bonus tracks, last September. What was probably the longest running feud in rock was finally resolved.
         “It’s been sad in one way,” said Pete when I asked him how he felt about its reissue after all these years. “We discovered that some guitars were added during the mixdown, standard practice at the time for three-track. So some of the tracks are incomplete. I have not been involved at all in the controversy or haggling. I knew that Shel owned the tapes and copyright, nothing could be clearer. He just needed the right deal.”

         Which is more than The Who ever got from him. 


wardo said...

Fascinating -- and great to finally have the whole story in context!

matala said...

Excellent insider info on my favs! Thanks Chris!